RETHINKING THE RURAL IN CONTEMPORARY NEWFOUNDLAND ART (1997)
[First published in a catalogue for the Eyland curated 1996 exhibition "Rethinking the Rural in Contemporary Newfoundland Art" for Art Gallery of Newfoundland & Labrador.]
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The Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador, which used to be the Art Gallery, Memorial University of Newfoundland (I will refer to it henceforth by its present initialism), produced the comprehensive survey exhibition Twenty-Five Years of Art in Newfoundland in 1986. Other AGNL exhibitions have looked at Newfoundland art with a narrower focus over the years. Joan Borsa's 1991 Maskunow: A Trail A Path addressed the land art of artists such as Marlene Creates and Pam Hall. Helen Parsons Shepherd and Reginald Shepherd: Four Decades featured the work of two locally important senior artists: it included an essay by Newfoundland's foremost visual arts critic, Peter Gard. Don Wright 1931-1981, a retrospective was curated by Creates for the AGNL. St. Michael's Printshop has also been given a retrospective exhibition at this venue, curated by artist Christine Koch. Regular attention continues to be given by the gallery to senior artists Christopher Pratt, Mary Pratt, Gerald Squires and David Blackwood.
This exhibition is not a survey like the 1986 show - I do not, for example, address art by emerging artists, and I have left out significant people. Instead, I invite viewers to dispute or modify the following categories to suit their own experience within a general heading of contemporary rural art: Country Pictures, Rural Readymades, and Black Marks.
Contemporary Rural Art:
"When a person visits a country for the first time, he or she searches for things to fit into a previously existing mental picture. So when I went to Newfoundland I couldn't wait to see fishing boats, codfish, and old-timers drinking Screech. I wondered what the art would be." ("A Visit to Newfoundland" by Joe Boldolai, artscanada, Winter, 1975-76, pp. 41-47.)
Joe Boldolai's mental picture, formed in 1975, is still ferried and flown to Newfoundland daily by tourists, miners, oil men and animal rights fanatics. Meanwhile this little corner of the world gets on with a more densely complicated culture in which rural art tussles with city values. This exhibition seeks to demonstrate how common ideas about the rural are no longer useful in the assessment of late 20th-century art from the countryside.
The bad news from contemporary Newfoundland - the collapsing fishery, a declining population, and 20.4 per cent unemployment (John Gray, Globe and Mail, February 14, 1997, p. A8) - is tragic; but there is good news, too, and not only about Hibernia oil and nickel in Labrador's Voisey's Bay The recent maturing of Newfoundland's visual arts scene is a bright spot in what for many is the gray morning of the province's globalization. I expect this bright spot to glow long after the nickel and oil are gone.
A considered concept of contemporary rural art would not treat Newfoundland art as if it were some poor country cousin of urban art, but rather, in relation to a changing world in which simple country/city distinctions in art do not function as they used to. Art is linked to rural tourism in myriad ways - even amongst rural artists who do not make tourist art - and tourism, among other things, has redefined the place of the rural artist in a predominantly urban world; but an esthetics of tourism cannot account for most of the art in this exhibition. (For a recent discussion of tourist art, see lan McKay's The Quest of the Folk, Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth Century Nova Scotia. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994.) Rural places are not only tourist destinations, we remember, but places where contemporary artists can live complex lives, full of travel, correspondence, shows in various cities and work in other countries - and yet, are they still rural artists?
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If the word rural means anything these days, Newfoundland is a profoundly rural place. According to the 1991 census, 58.9 per cent of Newfoundlanders live in urban centers, but these centers, by most urban standards, are minuscule: just 171,859 people live in St. John's; and Corner Brook, the second largest town (and home of an art school that opened in 1987) has a population of just 33,790. As the population of Newfoundland shrinks (7,500 left in 1996 according to John Gray in the Globe and Mail - ibid.) - it is becoming a more rural place. And so with a nod or two to the urban aspects of St. John's and Corner Brook - not to mention the urban histories of many Newfoundland artists (about which I have more to say presently) - Newfoundland art should be called rural art, even more specifically, contemporary rural art.
The great bulk of Canadian art is urban, city-centered art. In a major city, an artist can be supported within a milieu made up almost entirely of art world initiates. The codes and genealogies of wit and materiality native to urban art can be cryptic, specialized and narrow. But rarely are there enough art world initiates in rural places to comprise an artist's core audience. Local responses to rural art may preempt an artist's sense of long distance responses, so that an artist, however informed, becomes unsure of what to make of the common assumption that contemporary art should have only an urban maker and an urban viewer.
Contemporary rural artists are not isolated by lack of information about the wider art world, but they do live in a milieu in which critical feedback is general and, at times, unreliable. People talk blithely about global communications without realizing that culture thrives on the physical proximity of people. In a big city it is possible, for example, to have a social life in which only sculptors participate. Artists in the city can assort themselves into clans as narrow as an Internet chat group. But again, the most important distinction between the country artist and the city artist is the rich cultural texture of city life, not access to information about the latest trends.
There are clichés about rural artists that fit nobody in this exhibition and few Newfoundland artists. The wildlife painter, the folk sculptor and the indigenous carver are common images of the rural artist, and such folk exist in Newfoundland and Labrador. They are not, however, included in this show. Marlene Creates and Beaty Popescu are highly-educated people who aspire to make rural art that has no local precedents in Newfoundland. Their ruralness must be seen through the prism of a non-traditional ecological perspective and in reference to environmental art from around the world. Unlike the cliché of the rural artist, they are middle-class people who have gone to art school. Christopher Pratt and Gerald Squires are Newfoundlanders who use a traditional technical means to reconcile a rural past with contemporary life, but neither do they fit into a wildlife/folk art/indigenous slot. What all these artists have in common is a contemporary vision of the rural that they well know is back lit by an urban world - none of them are primitives or outsiders. This exhibition attempts to construct a framework by which some - not all - Newfoundland art can be seen clearly as contemporary rural art.
Perhaps urban culture is as ubiquitous as acid rain, but many artists resist urban pressures in ways that get a positive response, ironically enough, from urban people. That's because rural art often expresses the desires and fantasies of urbanites, and tourist art is only one expression.
Contemporary rural art is not an art of cultivated isolation. Gerald Squires, referred to by many as the archetypal Newfoundland artist, has recently taken extended trips to India. Scott Goudie does not see taking a residency in Berlin as being incompatible with his status as a Newfoundland artist. Marlene Creates is always traveling somewhere to participate in a
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show. Recently I saw a big exhibition by Corner Brook artist Kent Jones and encountered Sharon Puddester in Northern Ireland. Michael Coyne has the world wired up by modem and some very expensive computer equipment to his Corner Brook studio. Jim Hansen sends his postcard art around the world from his little house in St. John's. Christopher Pratt is the premier artist of Mira Godard's gallery in Toronto. As I write, Mary Pratt is being f`eted across the country in the wake of a popular retrospective exhibition. Young graduates of Sir Wilfred Grenfell College bravely trot off to various grad schools in the U.S. and Canada for a look. Local galleries such as the James Baird Gallery market Newfoundland art around the world. The difference between the Newfoundlander as an embattled survivor in Bodolai's 1975 article and the globe-trotting Newfoundland artist of today has nothing to do with means - many of these artists are still struggling; it reflects, rather, the changing character of contemporary life everywhere - country and city - in the West.
The contest between urban and rural sensibilities in contemporary Newfoundland art must begin by reference to established - even by now canonical artists - such as Christopher Pratt, Mary Pratt, Gerald Squires and David Blackwood. These artists have built the backdrop on which the thesis of this show is projected. Unfortunately, space restrictions prevented the inclusion of their works in this exhibition. Some are reproduced here.
Visual art in Newfoundland has benefited from a bedrock - a permanent staff, if you will - of these and other artists, curators and educators such as Bill Ritchie, Frank Lapointe, Ray Mackie, Helen Parsons Shepherd and Reginald Shepherd, Patricia Grattan and Caroline Stone. Some, like Don Wright, have passed away and others, like Peter Bell and Heidi Oberheide, no longer live in Newfoundland; other bedrock artists, for example Michael Coyne and the tenured staff of Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, are relative newcomers. The artists amongst this crowd make and have made diverse work, but for a wide public on the island and off, the iconic images of Newfoundland have heretofore been provided by just four artists: Blackwood, Christopher Pratt, Mary Pratt and Squires.
Newfoundland is the most ethnically homogeneous province in Canada - 88.9% of Newfoundlanders are British in ethnic origin - and these roots have produced, in these four
artists, rural pictures that draw on memories of European art through traditional painting and graphic techniques. Some of Gerald Squires's depictions of giant rocks (such as the one in
his work Monolith 1989) are reminiscent of Gustave Courbet in their insistence on material reality and photographic clarity. The crystalline precision of Christopher Pratt's images are reminiscent of tendencies in German Romantic art. The industrial era that gave birth to Modernism in Europe had certain delayed effects in Newfoundland, and it is as if Newfoundland's more recent developments - a rapid
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industrialization that has happened within the lifetimes of our 'country picture' artists - have engendered artistic responses similar to earlier responses to earlier crises. Art can satisfy a psychic need for the reconciliation of contemporary life with the past; this is part of the appeal of a visionary Christopher Pratt building, an empiricist Squires landscape, a nostalgic Blackwood print or a Mary Pratt interior.
Canadian urbanites fantasize about the tropics, so what accounts for their interest in country pictures from Newfoundland? Newfoundlanders revel in the harshness of the island's climate and in their endurance of it. Newfoundland art is replete with imagery that mocks the typical urban attitude that Canadian land is as inhospitable as outer space. But while a story of fearsome struggles with the land can be conveyed in country because, among other reasons, their depiction of scenes around them is associated with a mythic past. In classic Mary Pratt works, this rurality is
Ontario, Toronto often regarded as being of the country kitchen sort, but there is also a darker, gothic flavor to many of her works, for example, The Service Station and the tense, sexually-charged figure paintings. Christopher Pratt presents an ideal rural architecture in work which has the clarity of a purely mental image. Many of David Blackwood's prints and Gerald Squires's paintings depict narratives about the disappearance of traditional settlements and ways of life, facts that are part of everyone's family story, whether they live in the city or the country, whether they live in Newfoundland or not. (Because of the dark tone of his etchings, one could claim that Blackwood also fits into our Black Marks category.)
For centuries Newfoundland has accepted - sometimes grudgingly - outside influences. The Rock's wild environment tends to bring tender urban flesh to heel quickly. The romance of Newfoundland's history, its tenacious people and the splendors of its land and sea have bewitched many artists over the years, and as far back as Frederic Church and Rockwell Kent artists with and without family connections to Newfoundland have moved there to make art and, more important, they have stayed for long periods. The art school in Corner Brook is relatively new, but many of its city-trained teachers - mostly "Come-From-Aways"(CFAs) - are already mutating into a peculiar sort of Newfoundlander whose art expresses either an estrangement from or an attempt at reconciliation with the rural and with nature.
The center of CFA Newfoundland art is the Department of Visual Arts, at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, established in 1987. The school has permanently changed the character of Newfoundland art. For the first time Newfoundlanders are able to get an accredited fine arts degree in the province, and for the first time they are returning from graduate schools after being able to compare their undergraduate training in Newfoundland with other instruction.
As every art school does these days, Grenfell introduces its students to the readymade and its permutative possibilities. The readymade was invented by Marcel Duchamp in the early part of this century, in the wake of Cubist collage and assemblage, but it hit its stride in post-war art. Duchamp is considered by many to be the most important artist of the last half of the 20th-century, and the readymade dominates the world-wide academic
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art world as an important technique. Clever use of a readymade and its variations can mark art as urban, if not urbane, clever and ironic. Typically the readymade is a mass-manufactured article signed by an artist as art, but there are many hybrid versions of this form which are used by
contemporary artists - innumerable spinoffs of the idea which incorporate hand work and appropriated materials.
The concept of a rural readymade produces a chicken-and-egg dilemma: Which comes first, the art or the sensibility that has an outside artist using the technique in Newfoundland. Corner Brook, for example, has more log piles than buildings downtown, and so students and staff at
Grenfell have little industrial stuff to "ready make". One artist (not in this exhibition) told me that she had trouble making her art because Corner Brook has little urban garbage. The city has a university campus, a logging depot, stores, but no piles of mass manufactured goods that may
be turned to the advantage of the contemporary urban artist. Hence the evolution of the rural readymade, a form that uses rural or natural items of mass manufacture (such as Popescu's beaver-chewed logs) to make contemporary art.
The rural readymades in this exhibition include works by emigres to Newfoundland, not all of whom are associated with Corner Brook, but all of whom have had solid art school educations off the island. Marlene Creates, Pam Hall, Beaty Popescu and Suzanne Swannie are all products of distant art schools. Each of these artists adapts the most urban of art forms to rural purposes, often with an environmental twist. Creates incorporates beach pebbles, text and photographs in a mixed media work called Unsupervised Swimming Area. (The other Creates work in this show, Entering and Leaving St. John's, Newfoundland 1995 is more explicit about the urban/rural divide). Hall binds up a fishing net into The Coil; Popescu collects natural things to make rural readymades which have environmental and psychoanalytical content; and Swannie, in work based on the standard form of a rural East-lndian hand-woven dress, connects the readymade (as Duchamp himself did) with the manufacture of clothing.
The Canadian artist Agnetha Dyck, who uses bees to make art, and the Italian Giuseppe Penone, who makes "branches" out of logs by whittling away at knots, come to mind when the concept of a rural readymade is more widely considered. There is a Romantic tendency to the rural readymade, an absence of irony. The British artists Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy have made rural readymades for years by taking photographs of careful arrangements of natural things in the wild. The rural readymade plays with Duchampian precedent, but toward gentler, less ironic country ends. Unlike Duchamp's choosing, which involved a studied indifference to a manufactured article, Hall, Creates and Popescu pick already made objects or objects made by animal agents, for various reasons. Suzanne Swannie, who makes her work from scratch, nevertheless makes a knowing reference to the readymade by reference to Duchamp's puns on ready-to-wear clothing. Swannie's construction and manipulation of the pattern of a rural East-lndian traditional dress - the kind which is "mass" manufactured by millions of people by hand - in Considering Two Small Forms takes the irony out of the readymade tradition in favor of a very personal, even sentimental, reference to her daughters. Once again the rural readymade lines itself up in opposition to its urban precedents: instead of staring the viewer down, the rural readymade redirects our attention to the ground and to nature.
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There was a world-wide explosion in print-making in the 1970s, when artists became inspired to make screen prints, lithographs and etchings in order to bring high-quality work to the public at reasonable prices. But over the past 15 or 20 years, wildlife artists have confused the public about what a print is by marketing large editions of offset reproductions as fine art originals. Unfortunately, as the market for these reproductions collapses, a disgruntled public is becoming suspicious of all prints and printmakers. This situation calls for some education and patience in artists, dealers and patrons; in the meantime, it has resulted in a falling off of interest in printmaking in many art centers.
Not so in Newfoundland, where printmaking is as strong as it ever was. The lower cost and easy transport of screen prints, lithographs and etchings continue to open up national and international windows for Newfoundland artists. The center of this production is in St. John's and is called St. Michael's Printshop.
Don Wright, Heidi Oberheide and Frank Lapointe founded St. Michael's in the early 1970s. It was a teaching and learning center before there was a fine art school in Newfoundland, so its influence on the Newfoundland scene has been stronger than if it had been simply a department within an already existing art school. The printshop is a center for visiting artists. Since the recent scaling back of a post-secondary craft school, St. Michael's has become even more important to St. John's.
Black Marks includes work by Manfred Buchheit, Scott Goudie, Marlene MacCallum, David Morrish, Sharon Puddester and Leslie Sasaki. The St. Michael's printmaking tradition abides in a deep black. One can argue that all printmaking has a basis in black, but my sense is that the black that suffuses the work of many photographers and graphic artists in Newfoundland - who are not necessarily printmakers - lends itself to a certain melancholic moodiness, a Proustian feeling that I detect in many Newfoundland prints and photographs.
David Morrish's photographs of decayed animals might well be classified as a species of rural readymade, but I have included them in the Black Marks section of this exhibition because of their formal link to Newfoundland's other deep black work. Les Sasaki makes "smoke drawings" that revive Wolfgang Paalen's Surrealist fumage technique. Buchheit and Goudie use pinhole photography and mezzotint respectively to create a 19th-century look about their landscape images. Marlene MacCallum's quiet photogravure interiors, like much of the Black Marks work here, tap into a strain of imagery that is current in the wider world of art. Whether because of declining economic expectations, or boomer fears of mortality, much contemporary art is full of similar bipolar images.
This essay presents a framework which, if accepted, may help a reader puzzle out the complexities of Newfoundland art and perhaps the local art of other places. The section Country Pictures shows how European traditions are incorporated in new rural art; Rural Readymades connects contemporary neo-avant-garde practice with rurality; and Black Marks describes a large (unexcluded) middle ground which admixes the facts of a rural location with the needs of a contemporary urban world.
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Comments on the Artists
I have decided to write a few of my own personal sentences about each artist. Biographical information about them can be obtained from the Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador.
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Like Gerald Squires, his friend, Mannie Buchheit is not as well-known outside Newfoundland as he should be; he is, however, locally famous. I met him last year at a retrospective exhibition of his work curated by Bruce Johnson. Buchheit showed me a Polaroid machine which he had made into a pinhole camera - a delightful technical innovation. I could tell from our conversation that he must be a good teacher, and I had heard as much from his former students.
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Marlene Creates is one of Newfoundland's best-known artists. Her attention to detail in her art and her professional life is legendary. She has made an international community for herself amongst land and ecological artists - for example Hamish Fulton and Richard Long - by means of extensive travels to make and show her art.
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I visited Scott Goudie at his printshop in the country near Christopher Pratt's home. I was impressed by Goudie's unpretentious good humor about art and the art world. He is the first artist I have met for whom sport fishing is important. Like many independent Newfoundland artists, he is an entrepreneur who takes his professional life very seriously, and like many Newfoundland artists, he is firmly rooted in the land.
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Pam Hall strikes everyone who meets her as a person who would have done well in whatever profession she would have chosen - she is an extraordinary communicator. Her work, The Coil, has become a key artistic expression of the collapse of the Newfoundland fishery.
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Marlene MacCallum is a quiet, thoughtful woman who seems completely self-possessed and emotionally self-sufficient. All of this is reflected in her art, which is meditative, peaceful and quiet.
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I met David Morrish in his Comer Brook office last year as he was juggling administrative and artistic duties - he was the interim head of the Fine Art Department in Corner Brook. He and MacCallum share an interest in the obscure 19th-century technique of photogravure, which has given them both impressive results. I was delighted to talk with both of them about the tiny artistic cult of photogravure. Morrish's photographs of decaying animals seem perfectly suited to this medium, which, like Buchheit's pinhole photographs, conjure up a technological past.
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Beaty Popescu's art, like Creates's, is continuous with her interest in environmentalism, and Corner Brook seems to be the perfect place to do this work. She teaches art at Sir Wilfred Grenfell. One gets a satisfying impression from a visit with Popescu that this is an artist whose life matches the subject of her art and her physical location.
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I met Puddester at St. Michael's Printshop where she works as an artist and a co-ordinator. Recently, I also had the opportunity to watch her dealing with Irish artists during studio visits in Belfast. I was impressed by a deep seriousness she has about her art and the art of other printmakers.
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Sasaki grew up in Winnipeg and attended art school there before doing graduate work in the early 1980s at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. He may be the only professional artist of Japanese Canadian descent in Newfoundland. His art has never addressed the local Newfoundland scene overtly, although perhaps his smoke drawings a recent development for him - may relate to the magnificent rural views across the bay from his house in Corner Brook, which is half-way up a hill overlooking the sea.
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Swannie had a European upbringing, as did Popescu and Buchheit. Her teaching in Newfoundland goes back twenty years. Swannie's textile art has always shown a strong connection with conceptual and minimalist art. In her work she transforms a minimalist language into a gendered reflection of social, formal and material issues.
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Works in the Exhibition
Works are on loan from the artists unless otherwise indicated. Measurements indicate image size, and height precedes width.
Corner Building, Bell and Henry Streets 1977
pinhole photograph 28 X 35.5 cm
collection of the Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador
Fooling Around... 1980
silver gelatin print 35.5 X 46 cm
Entering and Leaving St. John's, Newfoundland 1995
15 pairs of photographs, color cibachrome prints
each frame, 11 x 36 cm installed dimensions, 48 cm x 2 m
collection of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador
UNSUPERVISED SWIMMING AREA from the series Language and Land Use, Newfoundland 1994 assemblage of 3 black and white photographs, selenium toned silver prints,
each 41 X 51 cm, hand written panel, pencil on matboard, 25 X 30 cm, and pebbles
installed dimensions, 1.8 m from floor x 2 m, plus floor space
Gladiolas in my flat, Berlin 13/30 1996
mezzotint 44 X 23.5 cm
View from Gillams, Bay of Islands 12/40 1995
mezzotint 28 X 51.5 cm
The Coil: A History in Four Parts 1988-1993
fish net, cord, 24 dye coupler prints (Ektacolor) prints 27.5 X 35 cm each
The Coil 32 m x 25.5 cm
collection of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Inside Out 2/5 1996
photogravure 33 X 67 cm
Night and Day 1/5 1988
lithograph, collagraph, drypoint 31 X -77 cm
Pasht (Cat II) 1993
altered negative, toned and stained gelatin silver print 35.5 x 28 cm
Untitled AP 1995
photogravure 26.5 x 35.5 cm
Emergence Object 1992
beaver-chewed log, raven and crow feathers
35.5 x 12.5 x 12.5 cm
Emergence Object 1992 beaver-chewed log, map of the ocean floor
15x 10x 10 cm
Trickle 1997 wooden hatchet handles, moose antlers, moon shells, plaster, wire, sand, ink
each object 61 x 30.5 x 4 cm
Above the Waterline API 1994
woodcut on silk 40 x 99 cm
Parallel Swimmer API 1994
woodcut on silk 40 x 99 cm
Untitled 1996 smoke drawing
47 x 47 cm
Untitled 1996 smoke drawing
45.5 x 39 cm
Considering Two Small Forms, for Maja and Marta
works-in-progress about growth and accumulation 1997
layered paper, pins installation of 8 panels each approximately 63 cm x 1.5 m